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[GOLF] Ai Miyazato - Fast-Rising Golf Star from Japan

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  • madchinaman
    A Star in the Remaking Already a Japanese celebrity, Miyazato makes her U.S. debut this week By Thomas Bonk, Times Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 21, 2005
      A Star in the Remaking
      Already a Japanese celebrity, Miyazato makes her U.S. debut this week
      By Thomas Bonk, Times Staff Writer


      When Miyazato was 17, she was the first amateur in 30 years to win
      on the Japanese women's pro circuit. Last year at 18, in her fourth
      tournament since turning pro, she became the youngest player to win
      on the Japanese LPGA Tour.

      She was the first Japanese teen to earn more than $1 million in a

      Hisako "Chako" Higuchi was the first Asian woman to win on the tour
      when she took the 1977 LPGA Championship. Ayako Okamoto won 17 times
      on the tour.


      Is it possible that the next big thing in golf is only 5 feet 2?
      That would be precocious Japanese teenager Ai Miyazato, at 19
      already a sensation in her country, complete with a traveling media
      contingent, a hefty following of fans back home and a dream of
      making it big on the LPGA Tour.

      This week at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Miyazato
      makes her U.S. debut at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's
      first major of the year, playing with a sponsor's exemption. But
      Miyazato is already on the fast track and a major star in Japan.

      Women's golf is more popular on television than men's golf in Japan,
      according to LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw.

      "Ai Miyazato is responsible for that," he said. "She's certainly
      captured the imagination of Japan with her golf, much like Tiger
      Woods did in men's golf and Annika Sorenstam on our tour."

      When Miyazato was 17, she was the first amateur in 30 years to win
      on the Japanese women's pro circuit. Last year at 18, in her fourth
      tournament since turning pro, she became the youngest player to win
      on the Japanese LPGA Tour.

      She won four more times last year, was the first Japanese teen to
      earn more than $1 million in a year, then broke the course record
      with a final round 67 in South Africa to help Japan beat South Korea
      and the Philippines in the Women's World Cup when no one else shot
      better than a 72.

      Last month in Brisbane, Australia, at the ANZ Ladies Masters at
      Royal Pines, Miyazato opened with a course record-tying 63 but ended
      up losing by one shot to 30-year-old Karrie Webb.

      Afterward, Webb, already a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame, said she
      had seen the future and felt fortunate not to have been blinded by

      "I think I'm pretty lucky to get one off her now because in a few
      years we'll be seeing her in the winner's circle more and more,"
      Webb said.

      Webb also said that when Miyazato believes it's time to play in the
      U.S., she's going to be successful. And this week might be as good
      as any to find out: tough course, demanding conditions, talented
      field, media scrutiny and heavy pressure.

      If there is going to be a Miyazato moment, why not just go ahead and
      pair her with 15-year-old Michelle Wie, hand them their sticks and
      let them go at it?

      "Maybe we'll be seeing the future of women's golf," Votaw said.

      As for history, there isn't a rich one for Japanese women who made
      it big on the LPGA tour — with two notable exceptions.
      Hisako "Chako" Higuchi was the first Asian woman to win on the tour
      when she took the 1977 LPGA Championship. Ayako Okamoto won 17 times
      on the tour.

      No Japanese have won on the LPGA tour since Akiko Fukushima in 1999,
      so Miyazato has a chance to reverse a trend if she reaches her goal
      of playing the tour full-time in 2006. Although Japanese players
      have had trouble making inroads on the tour, their counterparts from
      South Korea, led by Se Ri Pak, have enjoyed an unprecedented run of

      Votaw said a revitalized Japanese LPGA may be on the verge of
      turning things around and that Miyazato may be on the cutting edge.

      "Whether she is someone that can come over here and bridge that
      cultural gap," the commissioner said, "then break the logjam of
      Japanese players, like the Korean players have already done, I guess
      time will tell on that."

      So will her game. Despite Miyazato's size, her distance off the tee
      is impressive, about 250 yards on average. That would put her in
      about the top 50 on the tour, 20 yards behind Sophie Gustafson's
      average of 270 yards that led the tour last year.

      Votaw, who played in a pro-am with Miyazato last year at the Mizuno,
      said he's never seen anyone send the ball on a higher trajectory
      after contact.

      "Even though she's like a pixie," he said. "She's delightful,
      charismatic, great for golf."

      Nikki Campbell of Australia, who played the Australian Masters, came
      away with a favorable impression of Miyazato.

      "Ai has no weaknesses, she's full of confidence," Campbell
      said. "She hits it very straight and she is an exceptional putter."

      Katherine Hull, another Australian player who was paired at Royal
      Pines with Miyazato, said she is deceivingly long.

      "She packs a punch. She hits a big ball for her size," Hull said.

      Born in Higashi Village, in the northern part of Okinawa, Miyazato
      began taking lessons at the age of 4 from her golf pro father,
      Masaru. Her brothers, Kiyoshi and Yusaku, are also professionals.
      Miyazato won the Okinawa Juniors three times and, at 14, played in
      the Japan LPGA's Suntory tournament and was 23rd.

      At Tohoku Senior High, she received special golf training, then was
      chosen top amateur in 2001. She won a gold medal the next year at
      the Asian Games in Pusan, South Korea.

      Whatever Miyazato does at Mission Hills against top competition,
      it's going to draw a lot more interest than she usually does. Her
      media gallery of more than 30 in the first round at Royal Pines was
      given a warning by tournament officials for causing delays in play.

      Besides reporters, photographers and cameramen, there were also a
      crew of 20 to film a documentary of Miyazato's sudden rush to fame.

      So far, 34 Japanese reporters, photographers and technicians from 19
      accredited news outlets have been credentialed for the Kraft Nabisco.

      When she won the Japanese LPGA last year the same weekend that Woods
      won an event in Japan (the Dunlop Phoenix), the television ratings
      for Miyazato's triumph trumped Woods, 11.0 to 2.6.

      Her manager, Yuji "Dave" Otsuka, says she is bigger than English
      soccer star David Beckham in Japan. The Ai Miyazato calendar is on
      the market, but you can't find one because it's sold out.

      She also has several television advertisements, one for Suntory,
      Japan's leading producer and distributor of alcoholic beverages,
      even though she can't sample any of the products because she has not
      yet reached the legal drinking age of 20.

      Miyazato prefers the U.S. band Green Day to traditional Japanese
      music, her favorite movie star is Brad Pitt, her favorite movie
      is "Troy" and she is planning on becoming the No. 1 player in the

      That would mean Miyazato would have to unseat Sorenstam, her idol.
      They went head to head at the Mizuno Classic in November and
      Sorenstam won; Miyazato shot a 63 on Sunday and tied for second.

      Miyazato likes Sorenstam so much, she has changed her autograph
      from "Ai" to "Ai 54," in honor of Sorenstam, who espouses a
      philosophy called "Vision 54," or a birdie at every hole.

      When Miyazato's media overran the course at Royal Pines, the group
      playing ahead of Miyazato complained the most. In that group was
      Sorenstam's sister, Charlotta. Maybe Miyazato will give Annika
      something to complain about in, say, 2006.


      Ai stirs the spirit of 63
      By Peter Stone

      Six years ago, Karrie Webb was in awe of herself when she carded a
      nine-under-par opening round of 63 around Royal Pines in the Ladies
      Masters. Yesterday, after witnessing Japanese teenage sensation Ai
      Miyazato equal that feat, she remarked: "That was the easiest nine
      under I've ever seen."

      The 19-year-old Miyazato begged to differ. "No, no way," she
      protested. "My putting was very good." Indeed it was; her golf ball
      was propelled into the hole seemingly by a magnet from all manner of
      distances, much to the delight of the largest first-day Masters
      crowd in its 16-year history, and a largely Japanese one.

      The enthusiasm of the Japanese media, numbering 40 after an initial
      accreditation of 11, was rampant - so much so that had Tiger Woods's
      caddie, Steve Williams, been on hand, he would have had a field day
      tossing cameras into the many lakes on the Royal Pines layout.

      From the very first tee - the 10th, as the trio of Webb, Miyazato
      and young Queenslander Katherine Hull played the back nine first -
      troubled brewed with Webb's caddie, Scot Mike Paterson, reprimanding
      the media. Several times the players were forced to back away from
      shots and recompose themselves after being distracted.

      So embarrassed was Miyazato about some of the behaviour that she
      apologised to Webb and Hull during their round.

      It wasn't only they who suffered but also the groups immediately in
      front and behind. One of their number, Swede Charlotta Sorenstam,
      complained of camera crews rushing ahead to set up, as well as still
      cameramen lagging behind and interfering with the play of those

      Tournament promoter Bob Tuohy addressed the media after Miyazato's
      media conference asking that for the rest of the tournament they
      observe the common courtesies of golf and use common sense and
      respect for players. Hastily, possibly to avoid an international
      incident, it was added that the instruction was to all media, not
      just the Japanese.

      Tuohy had just arrived back from New Zealand, where he is also
      promoting the Australasian/Nationwide tours' co-sanctioned NZ PGA
      Championship, in time to see Miyazato's last two holes. "Worth
      chasing, wasn't she?" he remarked.

      He had first seen her at last year's Women's British Open at
      Sunningdale, where despite missing the cut she impressed the
      Australian touring professional of the 1960s and early 1970s.
      Immediately he rang a friend in Japan who is mates with Miyazato's
      manager, Yuji "Dave" Otsuka, to apply a little persuasion. It worked.

      After day one of the 2005 Masters, Miyazato leads by three shots
      from Hull, who birdied the final two holes for a more than
      creditable 66 that in most other years, bar Webb's 1999, would have
      led the tournament. A shot back on the third line is Sweden's Linda
      Wessberg, along with Australian Nikki Campbell and Englishwoman
      Kirsty Taylor.

      Webb, in stark contrast to Miyazato, was at odds with her putter,
      the wonder being it wasn't consigned to one of the lakes. She
      birdied the ninth hole, her last, to card an ordinary round by her
      standards around Royal Pines of two-under 70.

      This was the second time Miyazato had shot 63, a score she first
      recorded on the way to one of five victories in her rookie year on
      the JLPGA last year. Asked to compare the two, she ummed and aahed
      before suggesting they were much of a muchness.

      "I ought to have 10 under today. I tried but I didn't," she said, a
      missed birdie putt from four metres on the last being the supposed
      weak link. "I feel like I was in Japan today. Too many Japanese,"
      she said of the crowd support. It had been her intention to try to
      shoot three or four under on each of the four days and see what may.
      Now, Webb's tournament record of 26 under may well be under threat.

      Hull, a rookie on the US LPGA Tour last year who comfortably held
      her card, is on a roll at present. Two weeks ago she was runner-up
      in the $100,000 Classic at nearby Lakelands and last week won the
      $200,000 ALPG Players Championship at Club Pelican on the Sunshine

      Of the on-course circus, Hull said: "All of us had a bit of trouble
      with the media today. We had to back off a couple of shots. When
      you're so focused out there, though, you don't really pay attention
      to how big the crowds are or who's out there.

      "We practise on the range with people walking past and chatting and
      you shouldn't let it get to you on the course because you don't on
      the range, where you're still trying to hit good shots."

      Like Webb, she was super-impressed by the pint-sized Japanese. "She
      hits it quite long for her size. She packs a punch and she's got a
      solid game all round. I didn't know a lot about her before this
      week," Hull said.

      Nor did a lot of people. They do now.


      Ai Miyazato : The next big "little" thing

      Sure there is a slew of young up-and-comers in the world of women's
      golf, but one seems ready "bring it on" and she's got an entire
      country behind her.

      Waiting in the wings is 19-year-old Ai Miyazato, who is wildly
      popular in Japan. The 5-foot-2 pixie won her first title on the
      Japan LPGA as an amateur, then turned pro last year and won five

      Last month, she finished 1 shot behind Karrie Webb in the ANZ Ladies
      Masters. She has received a sponsor exemption for next week's Kraft

      "I think I'm pretty lucky to get one off her now because in a few
      years we'll be seeing her in the winner's circle more and more,"
      Webb said after her victory.

      Unlike the tall and powerful Hawaiian-born Wie, Miyazato is only 5-
      foot-2. She has become Japan's most popular player, and her TV
      ratings eclipsed those of Tiger Woods when the two played last year
      in Japan in separate tournaments during the same week.

      Miyazato led Japan to victory at last month's inaugural Women's
      World Cup in South Africa. She won five times last season on the
      Japanese Tour, and is considering a switch to the LPGA Tour as early
      as 2006.

      Here she comes...


      Miyazato packs a punch for women's golf in Japan

      GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) When Tiger Woods won the Dunlop Phoenix
      tournament last November, hundreds of thousands of Japanese watched
      the then-struggling former world No. 1 return to form in their
      Thousands more, however, were watching the diminutive Ai Miyazato
      win for the fifth time on the Japanese women's tour. When television
      ratings for the two events came in, the 19-year-old Miyazato's
      victory had easily outdistanced those of Woods.

      And it looks as if the best is yet to come.

      Two weeks ago, she led Japan to victory in the World Cup in South
      Africa, teaming with Rui Kitada at Fancourt. She's all over
      billboards in Japan, where many of her endorsements are for liquor
      and beer companies, even though she's still a year away from legally
      being allowed to drink.

      She's on the Gold Coast this week for the European Tour's ANZ Ladies
      Masters, where she's being followed by a team of 20 producers
      working on a television documentary on her. Her manager, Dave
      Otsuka, who is also her interpreter, unabashedly describes Miyazato
      as "bigger than David Beckham" in Japan.

      Miyazato, who is barely 152 cm in her golf spikes, says her next
      step is to take on America and, eventually, a run at top-ranked
      Annika Sorenstam.

      "The World Cup was my biggest win and I'll never forget that week,"
      Miyazato said. "I have my card in Japan for this year, so I'll try
      for the LPGA in America in 2006.

      "The LPGA is a very competitive tour and I think I might need to
      improve a little more. I want to be like Annika and I think about
      that a lot. I'm not sure how long it will take me to get to be world
      No. 1 but I think I will need to be lucky, too."

      Miyazato comes from a golfing family. Born in Higashison on the
      north side of Okinawa, her father, Masuru, is a golf coach and two
      of her older brothers, Yusaku and Kiyoshi, are pro golfers.

      Having played golf since the tender age of four, Miyazato, despite
      her lack of height, consistently drives about 250 yards. Her low
      score as a professional is 63.

      With the game comes the inevitable questions about her favorite
      things outside of golf -- she says she prefers American music to
      Japanese, and says her favorite rock group is Green Day and her
      favorite actor Brad Pitt.

      On Wednesday, she played in the pro-am with three executives from
      the Japanese-owned Royal Pines Resort, site of the Masters which has
      been won by Karrie Webb four times and by England's Laura Davies
      three times.

      Australia's Webb, a former No. 1, says she's impressed by Miyazato.

      "She has electrified golf over there, she's just a great kid," said
      Webb. "She's so exciting to watch."
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